How These Seattle Women Started in Tech — And Why They’ve Stuck Around

by Quinten Dol
September 12, 2019

We’ve heard plenty of stats about gender-based imbalances and injustices in the tech industry, and how the gap between equality and reality remains stubbornly wide. At the same time, Built In strives to highlight Seattle-area companies that are taking steps (or strides) in the right direction.

But what attracts talented women to the industry in the first place? What motivates an early ambition or late career change into the world of software? Here, we spoke with five local professionals about how they first got into tech — whether they came from jobs in government or straight out of high school — and why they stuck around.

 

smartsheet seattle women in tech
photo via smartsheet

As digital technology reaches into more and more aspects of our professional and personal lives, few companies have changed as much as Smartsheet. Founded in 2005, the workflow automation and collaboration software company now has offices worldwide and went public in April 2018. Senior Global Product Readiness Manager Alyssa Pankalla said she thrives on this kind of continuous evolution.

 

Tell us a bit about your career journey. Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?

I started my career in an outside sales role for a small IT company, where I got a glimpse into the value that the right types of technology bring, as well as processes and efficiencies that businesses were working to solve. In my next role, as a sales trainer for a large enterprise IT company, I began focusing more on what I love — teaching and training. This was the best of both worlds because I learned all about our hardware and software, and created the trainings to help the sales team learn and sell. The strong relationships I built are what made me aware of a fantastic opportunity at Smartsheet and, lucky for me, I’m doing more of what I love and working with some of the same people! The tech world has such a wide variety of colleagues who span a large array of specialties and backgrounds all coming together to build and deploy the best product possible. It’s really fun to work in an ever-changing, ever-improving field.

 

Tech is always evolving and improving — just like life — and it always keeps me on my toes!”

What do you love most about your tech career? Any specific aspects of your job that really make you light up?

Tech is always evolving and improving — just like life — and it always keeps me on my toes! I also love being surrounded by all of the intelligent minds I’m fortunate enough to work with day-to-day. This also includes our customers, as I lead both of our beta programs at Smartsheet. It’s so fun to see our customers’ excitement and to learn about the new and creative ways they’re achieving more with Smartsheet. When I hear a story from a sales rep about how happy customers are using our platform, or a business problem they solved that they weren’t able to previously, it brings such a human connection to my role. Technology connects us all, and I always want to be in a role where I am helping and hearing those stories.

 

pioneer square labs glow founders
photo via pioneer square labs

The Pioneer Square Labs startup studio brings entrepreneurs, techies and business ideas together and spins out companies like nobody’s business. One of these startups is Glow, a platform that helps podcasters convert listeners into paying subscribers, and whose co-founder and CEO is former Obama administration official Amira Valliani.

 

Tell us a bit about your career journey. Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?

I started off in a place that most people think is the opposite of tech: government. I had the privilege of serving in the Obama White House and Clinton State Department, working on big, world-changing problems. What attracted me to government is the same thing that attracted me to tech: the ability to make change at scale.

I’m deeply thankful for my time in government and feel lucky to have had the chance to serve in the capacity that I did. But I didn’t see myself spending my career in D.C. When it came time to figure out what was next, I wanted to find other opportunities where I could make an impact at scale. Tech made sense.

 

I’m watching account growth like a hawk and am on a first-name basis with a large share of our early users.”

What do you love most about your tech career? Any specific aspects of your job that really make you light up?

I love the feeling of building something and watching it go from zero to one. Everyone on my team can tell you that I’m watching account growth like a hawk and am on a first-name basis with a large share of our early users. I’m constantly trying to figure out how people who create new accounts find out about us, and what moves the needle in terms of our product and marketing efforts. Mostly, however, I just like talking to our users. One of the coolest moments of my past few weeks was hearing about a podcaster who’s a Pez collector, and how she’s grown the premier Pez-collecting podcast in the country from scratch. I never would’ve thought I’d build a company that’s relevant to the Pez-collecting community, but here I am, creating something that can make a meaningful impact in the life of someone incredibly passionate about a field I had never heard of. Those moments make me smile.

 

liquidplanner seattle tech startup women in tech
photo via liquidplanner

Not everyone sets out on their career path hoping to crack the tech industry. Take Keiko Borkenhagen, who was working at a restaurant and studying politics when a chance encounter sent her on a totally different trajectory. Now, she works as the Director of Education and Training for Eastlake-based project management software company LiquidPlanner.

 

Tell us a bit about your career journey. Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?

While I was in college working as a restaurant server, I got to know one of my regular customers who ran a technical training program for a local tech recruiting firm. He offered me an internship, which eventually turned into a full-time job offer after I graduated from college. I studied political science in college, but after getting some exposure during my internship it was obvious there was a lot of opportunity in the world of tech, even for someone with a liberal arts degree.  Looking back on that, it underscores the importance of establishing relationships and being authentic — opportunities will come from those connections.

 

...I can satisfy my analytical side by breaking down complex ideas and problems...”

What do you love most about your tech career? Any specific aspects of your job that really make you light up?

Aside from the serendipity of that internship opportunity, I discovered I really liked the world of tech. Having built my career in technical education, I can satisfy my analytical side by breaking down complex ideas and problems, and my interpersonal side gets to help others learn about it. What lights me up is when I customer says “Ohhhhhh, I get it now!”  That makes me so happy to know that I was able to break through and help them find value.

 

lighter capital seattle women in tech
photo via lighter capital

When you’re working at a startup, there’s rarely an endpoint where something can simply be called “finished.” Lexine Pishue understands and thrives in this environment, having taken her first tech job straight out of high school and, in her words, “just never left.” Nowadays she works at alternative-to-VC fundraising startup Lighter Capital, where she serves as its Head of Systems for its tech and data team.

 

Tell us a bit about your career journey. Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?

I got my first job in tech the day after I graduated high school. I was hired as an intern at a digital physics textbook, later became the first full-time employee and just never left. I always loved continuous learning, languages and solving problems, so programming was just a natural fit for me. I have a hard time leaving a job half-done, so leaving isn’t really an option for me.

 

If I can find an application for it, I can justify learning anything.”

What do you love most about your tech career? Any specific aspects of your job that really make you light up?

I love the freedom that this career gives me in terms of interests and growth opportunities. If I can find an application for it, I can justify learning anything. I love understanding complex systems, and I also love solving problems for people and making their lives easier in some way. It gives me so much satisfaction.

 

valant seattle tech startup
photo via valant

We can all agree that engineers are a special breed. To Bosky Atlani, who serves as VP of Engineering at mental health SaaS company Valant, engineers “have the personalities of artists.” Like so many engineers and other tech professionals in the Pacific Northwest, Atlani first felt her career accelerate during her time at Microsoft.

 

Tell us a bit about your career journey. Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?

My bachelor’s degree is in business administration, but as I get nervous talking with people and like problem-solving, I decided to pursue computer science. After getting my master’s degree, I built HR software. My first real break as an engineer was at Microsoft, where I built software that everyone I knew could use. While I probably had the wrong reasons for starting in tech, it’s been a great choice. I love technology’s impact in day-to-day life — from small things like turning on a light to bigger problems like solving for better patient care. You can do whatever you want in tech once you have the skills.

 

I like the balance between analytical thinking and creativity.”

What do you love most about your tech career? Any specific aspects of your job that really make you light up?

I like the balance between analytical thinking and creativity. Software engineering has a lot of levers to tune — how do you build something, how you do keep up with something without technical debt, how do you deliver to hard timelines? You have to be creative. Engineers tend to have the personalities of artists. In my job, I love being able to eliminate inefficiencies, and as a manager I want to make sure developers have all the tools they need to be efficient and focus on real problems. Releasing anything is also very exciting. The more often we release, the more exciting it is.

 

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